Church Monuments Society


Coffin lids at Woolhope (Herefordshire)

By CMS in Heritage

In the north aisle of St George’s church, Woolhope, Herefordshire, are three murally-mounted fragments of coffin lids currently undergoing conservation. The photos shown below were taken in 2014, all by Tim Sutton. One slab, possibly dating to c.1300, shows, under a tapered canopy-like structure, two straight arm crosses with sprouting foliage (Fig. 1). The second slab, probably of early-fourteenth century date, shows a civilian figure under a narrow, arched canopy with a slight ogee arch and thin crocketing (Fig. 2). In the cusps on either side are tiny carved circular devices, resembling ball flowers. In the top corners between the arch and the raised edges of the slab are two plain circular devices. The man is clean shaven and his hair reaches his jawline. His hands are crossed over his chest. His palms are flat but the right hand supports a book, perhaps a prayer book signifying devotion. It can be closely compared with a complete slab at Upton Bishop, Herefordshire (Fig. 3), but it is not known who either commemorate.

The third and most curious artefact is a wall-mounted fragment of the upper part of a coffin-lid probably dating from the middle years of the thirteenth century (Fig. 4). As a composition it appears unique. I have been studying medieval church monuments since the 1970s but cannot recall ever having seen anything remotely similar. It shows the upper part of a sideways-turned lady. Her hair is bound with crimped bands, presumably of linen, another of which is wound under her chin. She wears a long-sleeved fur gown, held in by a band at the waist, and has a cloak with a barely discernably border at the edges over it.

In her right hand the lady holds an artefact to her face. Could it have been a mirror, which at this date would most likely have been made of polished bronze rather than glass? Typically these have been associated with the burial of women but from my limited knowledge I know of no similar grave goods as late as this. In 1879 workmen discovered three skeletons in a quarry between Crickley and Birdlip overlooking the Vale of Gloucester. With the bones were some amazing Iron Age artefacts. The most important object was a handheld mirror of bronze. The front of this was originally highly polished for reflections, but the rear is decorated with flowing patterns worked into the metal. It is one of the finest items of Celtic art to survive in Britain.

What are also especially unusual are the symbols which adorn the rest of the slab. Over her head appears to be part of a quatrefoil with inward-facing trefoil terminals. Could it have formed part of a head of a cross, the remaining elements of which were once on the lost lower part of the slab? There are several features down the right-hand side of the slab, some too worn to be interpreted. The top one is elliptical in form, while below it is a roundel with what seems to be a bird with outstretched wings. Next, below the level of what has been interpreted as a mirror, is a bowl. It has some sort of markings on the outer side. Could they be fingers, indicating that the lady was holding it below the mirror? Finally, there is a flourish with trefoil terminals.

These three coffin-lids, although in a damaged state, are remarkable survivals which deserve to be known better.

Copyright: Sally Badham


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